I would like to take the opportunity today to wish Celtic’s greatest ever captain, and my hero, a very happy 79th birthday.
Billy McNeill made his Celtic debut on 23 August 1958 in a 2-0 victory over Clyde, with Sammy Wilson and Bertie Auld scoring on the day. Billy would then go on to make another 789 appearances in green and white hoops, as well as serving the club as captain, manager and ambassador.
I first came across Billy McNeill when I was about seven-years-old. As I was born 33 years after his greatest success, I was never fortunate to experience him in the flesh, though the videos of him scoring bulleting headers and lifting the European Cup have, in some ways, helped make up for that.
As a Celtic supporter, there is not many better people to look up to. In a career which spanned from 1958 to 1975, McNeill won nine Scottish League Championships, seven Scottish Cups, six Scottish League Cups and the European Cup, as well as collecting a runners-up medal in 1970. As Celtic manager, he won four League Championships, three Scottish Cups and one League Cup, guiding the team to a double during the 1987/88 Centenary season.
As Celtic mascot in 2012, I had the privilege of leading the Hoops out the tunnel with Scott Brown. As I stood in the foyer at Hampden Park that day, I did not know what it was going to be like walking out in front of a crowd of 50,000 people.
As the dignitaries strolled into the National Stadium I spotted a formidable figure, but he had already spotted me. Billy, along with his wife Liz, came over and started chatting to me and my parents. He had noticed my Celtic zipper and decided to stop for a quick chat. I was totally in awe of the figure that was standing directly in front of me chatting away. He was so pleasant and gracious to me as he shrugged off anything that I said about his achievements, and simply continued to talk away.
Fortunately, I have met Billy and Liz on a few occasions after this meeting and spent a bit of time in their company. It was an absolute honour to share a page with Billy in a national newspaper, as well as in the Celtic View.
As a player, Billy McNeill was Celtic’s greatest captain, leader and motivator, who brought so much joy to so many people’s lives. He has achieved everything that anybody could wish for in football but has continued to remain a humble and modest man that would always have time for the Celtic support. In Alex Gordon’s recent book ‘In Praise of Caesar’, Celtic CEO Peter Lawwell sums Billy up perfectly as a man of “integrity that never wavered in his devotion to Celtic.”
To me, there has been no greater figure in the 131-year history of Celtic Football Club. His contribution to the club over 60 years has been nothing short of remarkable. Billy and Celtic are inseparable. Cesar’s commitment to the cause, his love for the Hoops, and the medals and trophies he has won are typical of his lifetime in Paradise. Cesar has done it all and Celtic will never see his like again.
Declan McConvilleListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast